Monday, March 03, 2008

Paradigm Shifts and Permaculture

Paradigm Shifts and Permaculture

by Douglas Barnes

Not long after I started this website, I came to the shocking discovery that there are those who express an almost violent hatred of permaculture. At the time, I could not understand why anyone would object to a system that simply seeks to provide us with the tools to make our lives sustainable. What could possibly set someone off against a system that treats long-term sustainability as a serious endeavor and works to develop simple, affordable systems that lead us in that direction, I wondered. I had thought that even if one is set on continuing their life within the model of the status quo, surely they would be happy that we permaculturists are there in the background working out solutions to current and future problems.

I was wrong. There is something in permaculture so inherently threatening to some that I occasionally receive very irrational attacks, extending on one occasion to what basically amounted to a death threat. What could it be that causes some people to react so irrationally?

One clue is the origin of the attacks. They are always coming from individuals in wealthy nations. The comments I have received from people living in economically poorer nations have always been ones of appreciation and support. For one group, the need for inexpensive, sustainable solutions that really work is readily apparent. For the other group, people can currently afford to ignore reality, and the suggestion that change is needed is threatening.

An example of the first group expressing appreciation is my relationship with the Green Tree Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, India. Though formerly a tropical region, Andhra Pradesh is now a semi-arid zone receiving as little as 500 mm of rainfall after very long and hard dry seasons. Rainfall is the source of water; and there are tense times waiting for the rains. (Last year they even tried cloud seeding to get rainfall, and when the rain finally fell, I felt relief from 10,000 km away.) The need for sustainable solutions is not a matter of debate there; the solutions are literally needed if they are to survive the short term. Food is produced locally, and drinking water is sourced locally as well.

That can be contrasted with a First World equivalent. Consider an average ¼ acre lot in Tucson, Arizona, which receives 253,621 litres of water a year via rainfall, but the average 3-person family there consumes 454,248 litres (almost twice that nature provides them with). Additionally, the 253,621 litres it receives in rainfall is largely shunted away quickly by storm drains.1 Water supplies come from expensive outside sources. Food is trucked in from other parts of the U.S. and from other nations. Only monetary wealth makes such waste possible.

For the Third World, there are few illusions regarding their future. They know they are in trouble and the trouble will only increase without serious changes being made regarding the capture and storage of energy and resources. The Third World not only comes from poverty, they remain in poverty. The First World, however, has come out of poverty into a spurt of opulence. Once one acquires a taste of opulence, though, it is like a drug – hard to let go. And any suggestion that living high is no longer possible is met with lashing out similar to the confronted junkie.

Rereading the ideas of science historian Thomas Kuhn recently, I came to realise that what I was seeing in the attacks was a clash of paradigms.2 The old paradigm of progress driven by monetary wealth has a science fiction version of the future with fantastic technologies addressing every issue of material need and opening us up to a world of constant leisure time where human beings are freed from labour, able to pursue whatever endeavor their hearts desire. (Ironically, the monetary paradigm is giving us less and less free time to go along with the ever increasing amounts of technology it gives us.)3

This paradigm is so enticing that real answers to serious questions are glossed over. The appeal to technology as savior is the “sweeping under the rug,” in the late physicist Richard Feynman’s words4, of pressing problems humanity now faces. The appeal of seeking technology as an answer is understandable. As historian Ronald Wright pointed out in the 2004 Massey Lectures:

Our technological culture measures human progress by technology: the club is better than the fist, the arrow better than the club, the bullet better than the arrow. We came to this belief for empirical reasons.

Wright also points out, however, that “[o]ur practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which… is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.”5

Technology, it is said, is neutral – it is neither harmful nor beneficial. Only its uses determine helpful or harmful outcomes. I think it is rather the case that technology normally creates new problems that require ever more technology to solve the problems that technology creates.6 For instance, the creation of the modern steam engine led to the increased mining of coal, increasing the volume of machinery making coal inadequate to meet energy needs, necessitating the internal combustion engine, creating a car culture, necessitating highway systems, leading to the increased use of oil, leading to the current problems of peak oil and climate change, both very pressing problems we now face. The worst possible outcome I can imagine for the problem of peak oil is a technological fix providing the replacement of oil with some form of abundant, cheap energy. Energy on the scale we use today is only needed to continue us on our current path of ever more growth. At current world growth rates, we would see a doubling in economic output in a little more than 20 years time. However, each doubling of the world economy requires an equivalent to all the resource inputs for all of human history prior to the last doubling.7 In other words, to double the economy from where it is today, we will need to use up as many resources as we ever did in the past. Clearly, this would be disaster. Under the current paradigm, a technological fix to the problem of peak oil would lead to ecological collapse.

None of this is controversial, but if you are committed to the current paradigm, any reminders of such facts are threatening. If your way of life ends, so too do the dreams of the bright, shiny technological future. By seeking workable solutions only by currently existing technology and only by technologies that have either a chance of being sustainable or putting us on a sustainable path, permaculturists are indirectly shining light on the threats to the current paradigm. Permaculture then becomes an unwanted reminder that the days of the current paradigm are numbered. If one is emotionally invested in that paradigm, one may lash out against it.

Choosing to practice permaculture, on the other hand, means shifting paradigms. As Kuhn points out, one can only fully understand the perspectives of a given paradigm if one is in that paradigm itself. Permaculture causes a shift in perception of the world.

Traveling through a new subdivision, for instance, I do not see nice new modern homes that I would like to live in. Rather I see homes built without consideration for the energy needed to heat or cool them – homes that need tremendous energy inputs to make them livable. Looking inside, I see internal room layouts that do not facilitate either work or movement within the home, and little or no understanding of what patterns in architecture actually make people feel comfortable within a home.8 I see urban development without any consideration of community or energy. I see land dedicated only to conspicuous displays of opulence rather than the production of healthy food.

Walking into the forest, I don’t see trees and dirt. Rather I see complex, symbiotic networks of fungi, microbes, plant and animal. I see parasitic organisms not destroying, but carrying out vital roles in keeping the overall system healthy and even increasing diversity .9 I don’t see “problem” organisms, I see organisms whose importance I do not yet recognise. Looking at a field, I see potentials for the capture and storage of water and the possibilities for a vibrant and dynamic diversity of organisms that can be placed to create an ecosystemic system to meet not only the needs of the individual organisms, but also the people living on the site.

Under the old paradigm, an infestation of corn borers means you need to spray pesticides, or spend millions of dollars to genetically engineer a variety of corn to produce a toxin (then still need to spray anyway). Under the new paradigm, you first of all see an over-abundant food source for parasitoids. Secondly, you see evidence of some sort of imbalance: soil infertility perhaps, lack of predator habitat, over concentration of borer food, etc. The costs of the old paradigm are ecological destruction and risks to human health both known and unknown. Additionally, there is a rather substantial monetary cost in the form of chemical and genetic research (funded in large part by tax payers), externalized health costs and clean up costs, and costs to the farmer for seed and chemicals. The costs of the new paradigm are investments in learning the functional ecology of your system and an acceptance of temporary losses while balancing the system.

What are you talking about?

Coming from a completely different paradigm, communication with those in the old paradigm becomes difficult, as Kuhn points out. Were Claudius Ptolemy to jump through time to today and teach a first-year physics class, he would tell his students,

The Earth does not rotate; otherwise objects will fling off its surface like mud from a spinning wheel. It remains at the centre of things because this is its natural place – it has no tendency to go either one way or the other. Around it and in successively larger spheres revolve the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all of them deriving their motion from the immense and outermost spheres of fixed stars.10

The students would either think it was a joke, or an argument would ensue with each side wondering why the other could not understand what was clearly the nature of the universe as evidenced by observation.

In my own experience, pointing out the potential dangers in biotechnology as an approach to pest problems11, for example, I am always met with stunned silence when I ask why there is a pest problem in the first place. One rarely encounters devastating pest outbreaks in natural systems, and there is a reason for that.12 That reason, however, is only visible from within the new paradigm. The new paradigm lets us see that the problem is not one of pests attacking corn or cotton or brinjal, or weeds choking out soybeans. The problem is approaching a piece of land as a factory. The “pests” are only doing what organisms do: finding a niche and filling it. Create a niche conductive to early-stage pioneers (what people commonly call “weeds”) and you will see a lot of those pioneers. Create vast monoculture smorgasbords of pest food with little or no reserves for pest predators (or kill the predators by spraying insecticide on them) and you should know what to expect.

Point this out to people dedicated to the old paradigm and at best they will just ignore you. More likely they will dismiss your approach a priori as impossible or unworkable. Or worse, they will lash out at you.

To give another example, this one less extreme but still important, a colleague of mine recently did a large design and implementation job for a farm in Australia in which I participated by providing graphics for swale designs. Not only is Australia dry, they have not been receiving normal amounts of rainfall over the past few years, so the swales where really the cornerstone of the design. Without the capture and storage of water, there is no guarantee that the trees planted on site will survive and the site would definitely not do as well without them. Unfortunately, the client did not operate from the same paradigm as my colleague and decided that the swales were unnecessary and would not put them in. As a result, our expectations for the site are not high. If nothing else, this can serve as a practical warning to designers of cross-paradigm communication. Clients need to understand fully what you are doing and why.

Shifting gears

For the permaculturist him or herself, the paradigm shift has its own challenges. The greatest obstacle to overcome is fear. Permaculturists in the First World must step out of the material culture that they grew up with. This is a huge challenge, even if they identify that paradigm as the source of many of the hardships they face in their lives. Questions arise as to whether or not they should just keep doing what they've always done: Can you really heat and cool a home passively? What happens if I attempt to grow my own food and the entire crop fails? Do I know enough about animal husbandry? Gardening? Building? Will I be adopting a way of life that leaves me alone and isolated? Will I miss the old life I had? How will I get land? Where should I get land? Can I use the site I’m on now? How can I pay for the initial expenses of setting up my system? Will this stuff really work? Really?

Studying permaculture is a bit like going to a swimming pool: you are there because you want to jump in. The pattern most follow is dipping their feet in the permaculture pool as it were. You know that after jumping in, you will quickly adjust and enjoy it. It’s just that initial jolt you fear. People generally step in and step out, staying in longer each time until finally they just jump right in.

Once in, you don’t want to come out again. Personally, I am on the verge of selling off vacation property to purchase acreage on which to build a home of my own design and set up systems on a scale that I have only had the opportunity to do on others’ land. The choice between that and returning to my old life in the suburbs of Tokyo is clear. I will be happy to give a requiem for the nightlife, the hustle, the gleaming technology, the grocery bills, the water bills, the path that I know is not sustainable. It had its moments, but the perspective gained from the new paradigm makes living the old life impossible for me. As the physicist cannot go back to the Ptolemaic model of the universe revolving around the Earth, the permaculturist cannot look at the status quo conceptual framework of industrial society as even remotely sensible. Change becomes a necessity, even if that threatens some.

1. Lancaster, Brad. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands. Volume 1: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Tucson: Rainsource Press, 2006, p. 18 .

2. Bird, Alexander. "Thomas Samuel Kuhn" Dictionary of Literary Biography (2003), draft version available at; Okasha, Samir. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; Strohman, Richard. Epigenesis and Complexity: The Coming Kuhnian Revolution in Biology. Nature Biotechnology, March, 1997, pp. 194-200.

3.3 The San of the Kalahari work about 750 hours a year living in one of the harshest environments on Earth. By contrast, most North Americans work close to 3000 hours a year, more if you count housework. The best I have personally heard a permaculture system to achieve is around 620 hours a year. The is on a par with hunter-gatherer societies, which, counter-intuitively, require much less work to sustain themselves than “civilized” societies.

4. Strohman (1997).

5. Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Asansi Press, 2004, p. 4.

6. This is not to say that some otherwise destructive technologies – the bulldozer for instance – cannot be put to very productive uses such as the creation of water catchment earthworks. However, I think a lot of the “green” technology is going to turn out to be subject to the Jevons Paradox, allowing increased and accelerated resource depletion because of increased efficiency.

7. Smith, Rod. Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering, Carpe Diem: The Dangers of Risk Aversion. Civil Engineering Surveyor, October 2007 cited in Monbiot, George. What is Progress? December 4, 2007 available at

8. For a guide to good design, see Alexander, Christopher et al. A Pattern Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

9. For example, Armillaria mushrooms (honey mushrooms) kill off trees, but in doing so, they can create open pasture in forest. This creates new habitat for a variety of species that otherwise would not exist. It also sets up a rich edge ecology on the forest/pasture border. See Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.

10. Verma, Surendra. The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things. Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 2005, p. 16.

11. Problems include but are not limited to unknown and unpredictable effects from gene order disruption, gene scrambling in or around the insertion points of transgenes, genome-wide disruptions, deletions of genes, currently marketed GMOs with anti-biotic marker genes, possible undesirable gene activation due to promoter genes, recombination hotspots within the CaMV 35S promoter gene, unpredicted allergenicity or toxicity, unintended environmental consequences from toxin expression in insecticidal GMOs, problems from increased use with herbicide-tolerant GMOs, etc.

12. Pest plagues in nature are almost always temporary whereas in conventional agriculture, they are systematic.


vegetablej said...


Interesting to see your blog on permaculture from Japan and Canada. I'm in Japan (for over 7 years this time) but I'm returning to Canada in a week or so with the eventual goal of starting some kind of permaculture homesite.

Since I've just starting researching and trying to get my hands on whatever resources I can, I'm interested in anything you can tell me about useful courses, what you think the best books are, pretty much anything practical.

I guess there are some courses available in British Columbia where I'll be spending a few weeks, and in Ontario, but in Nova Scotia where I'll be living, it looks as if permaculture peaked, and subsided in the 70's. Of course I'd be more than happy to hear that I'm wrong. Maybe it has just been "integrated" and is not now labelled permaculture.

Thought I would say hello and thank you for your thoughts. I'll be reading back into your blog to see what I can learn.:)

I haven't met any of the haters yet, but seems to be a mighty big wall of indifference in most of the readers of _my_ blog. Hopefully those, like you, working in the field will eventually make people see the common sense of this way of life.

Unknown said...


There are a couple of permaculturists in Nova Scotia. Send me an email and I'll get you in touch with them. As for east coast courses, Geoff Lawton from Australia gets out to New York to teach at a friends place there. He is a world-renowned permaculturist and an excellent teacher. Check his site for schedules.

A full Permaculture Design Certificate Course from a registered teacher is what you want, really. I will be registering at some point and starting to teach. However, I have a lot on my plate this year. I get a lot of requests to teach a full course, but I don;t see that happening until 2009.

About books, I get lots of requests, so I think I'll make a post on the subject and let you decide what is most important.

I hope that helps a bit.


Anonymous said...

I really needed to hear what you said about 'it's really the jolt that we fear' These days I hate my life in Brampton so much. "Come on in, the water's fine..."

Unknown said...

Anna, I hope things will get easier with more contacts and more people interested in working together on permaculture. There is a momentum that builds when people start collaborating on things.